Why We Eat

Much time, effort and money is spent on thinking about, and determining, what and how much to eat. These questions are often asked when discussing weight loss or performance enhancement strategies. Equally important, if not more so, is understanding why we eat.

Think for a moment on why you start eating. Have you ever started eating due to any of the following?

  • Boredom
  • Stress
  • It was time to eat
  • Other people were eating
  • Food was placed in front of you
  • You were already in the kitchen
  • You were at a social gathering

And why do you stop eating?

  • The food was gone
  • Other people were watching you eat
  • The television show you were watching was over
  • The party ended

Rarely do we eat simply out of hunger. In fact, you will make over 200 decisions about food today, some conscious, many subconscious. They include:

  • Should I eat breakfast and if so, what should I have?
  • Should I eat the birthday cake that my co- worker brought in?
  • Do I go with the vegetable side or fries?
  • What should I make for dinner?
  • Should I eat with the group or by myself at my desk?

Food environments

Whether you are aware or not, answers to the questions above aren’t solely up to you. Your food environment (i.e., the food experience that surrounds you), plays an decisive role in your eating behavior. These are the factors that motivate us to eat, and to eat more. Your food environment is shaped by:

  • Dining atmosphere
  • Structure of food packaging
  • Variety of food choices
  • Visibility of food
  • Proximity to food
  • Size and color of plates and bowls • Shape of glasses
  • Size of utensils
  • Person you are eating with

Small changes, big improvements

Your food environment surrounds you, and is with you, at all times. Many individuals know what they should eat and how much they should eat. However, research has shown that we rarely stick with diets or other dramatic changes to our food consumption. It’s simply too hard to say no when in the moment of decision-making. Thus, making small improvements to your food environment has the ability to take decision-making out of the process by guiding you to the healthier choice Examples include:

  • Warm up your dining room as cooler temperatures lead to more eating.
  • Don’t stockpile junk food. Have fewer items, and in smaller packages, in your cupboards. You will eat less of them.
  • Don’t buy multiple varieties of ice cream. You’ll want to try them all.
  • Place fruit on your counter at home and make it visible. You’ll eat more of it.
  • Place water on your dining room table during meals. You will drink more of it.
  • Stand away from junk food. You will be much less likely to reach for it.
  • Use small plates. Your consumption will go down.
  • Buy red plates. Contrasting your plate color to food will raise awareness and you’ll eat less.
  • Use tall thin glasses for high calorie drinks. You will drink less of them.
  • Go for the smaller spoons. You will scoop up, and thus eat, less.
  • Limit the number of people you eat with. Your expectations of what is healthy to consume will change.
  • Just eat. Don’t read. Don’t watch TV, text, or surf the web. You will eat less overall.

By creating positive food environments you are putting yourself in the best possible situation for success, whether it be weight loss or performance enhancement. Environment trumps nutrition guidelines. Put another way, the number of times you need to say no to junk food decreases and the number of times you say yes to healthy options increases when you are surrounded by healthier food environments. Positive food environments take the deciding out of the decision making and lead to healthy choices. These wise choices, when combined with exercise and an active lifestyle, will lead you to a healthier life.

Republished with permission of the American College of Sports Medicine. Copyright © 2016 American College of Sports Medicine.

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